If fascism is the socialism of fools, then COVID-19 “skepticism” is the criticism of the uncritical. Both share alienated followers, whose energies are directed against the oppressed. From them we witness the worst. With big industry’s assistance, Europe’s totalitarian leaders took advantage of economic anxiety to recruit followers in a genocidal campaign of industrialized murder. Today, business owners direct protesters to remove their masks, further spreading a disease killing the poor and racialized.
Seeing the harms of conspiratorial nonsense, it’s hard not to retreat to the status quo. A common response is to “trust the experts”—government representatives and the medical establishment. Indeed, many “experts” offer sound advice: wear a mask, stay home, and practice distancing. But the experts are also part of the problem. Provincial governments have failed to ensure workplace safety. The medical establishment remains a racist and ableist institution. In response, a new narrative is required. The kind of alienation that leads to conspiracy theories should be recognized and addressed, while trust must remain in science. To do this will require directing frustration away from the oppressed and toward the political economy that has exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether one is stuck inside or forced to work, the pandemic is unbearable—and worse still when others not only ignore restrictions but take pride in doing so. Since April, COVID “skeptics” have marched down streets and gathered outside government buildings to protest lockdowns. Unmasked, they are vectors for a disease that is killing the vulnerable. And that’s not the worst of it. In May, Vancouver protesters blocked an ambulance and yelled “fuck you” at healthcare workers. In November, those protesting a Toronto barbecue restaurant’s mandated closure got into violent scuffles.
Hate, too, has spread. Capitalizing on anti-government sentiment and Sinophobia, the far right has joined in. The xenophobic Yellow Vest Canada movement were among the first to organize protests. In Quebec, the leading anti-mask group, Citoyens au Pouvoir du Québec, has ties with the far-right group La Meute. Conspiracy theorist David Icke—who claims that Jews, along with shapeshifting aliens, control the world—headlined a Vancouver anti-lockdown protest.
Frustratingly, there seems to be no rational basis behind these protests. The COVID-19 virus was not created in a Chinese laboratory. The vaccine is not a satanic plot to microchip the population, nor will it cause autism. But despite the best evidence, COVID misinformation continues. What can be done?
Faced with the farcical, it is easy to blame irrationality. Certainly, a lack of critical thinking—a result of our education system—deserves censure. But there is more to it.
A political economy that demands long hours of underpaid, unfulfilling work produces alienation. As COVID-19 pushes more people into poverty and traps us in our homes, this is only getting worse. Many believe their lives are no longer their own but in the hands of others. Yet, it is hard to identify who is responsible. The news media presents issues as discrete, with no connection between events.
Conspiracy theorists offer a way to understand the chaos, which helps to alleviate alienation. They recognize that we are not in control of our lives. A small elite rules us. The state does not protect us. Instead, it seeks to curb our liberties—even more so in times of crisis.
And they are right. The problem, then, is not that conspiracy theories are irrational, but that their paradoxical ability to use the truth to spread lies makes them effective in recruiting followers. This is the strategy of COVID “skeptics.”
COVID “skepticism” is a hotbed for the far right. But such linkages are not always obvious. The Line Canada is one of the largest anti-lockdown groups. At times, their goals appear reasonable. One of these is to “ensure the peoples [sic] civil liberties and freedoms are maintained.” They also claim that Canada is a not a country but a corporation, where “land was unlawfully claimed and allocated to business owners/settlers.”
Of course, their criticism does not go far. The Line Canada wants to “end corruption and tyranny.” But nowhere do they explain why corruption occurs and who benefits from such “tyranny.” As for their claim that Canada is a corporation, this is not a decolonial approach but a pseudo-legal, libertarian argument that is meant to legitimize lawbreaking—including COVID-19 measures—to the benefit of free enterprise.
Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth. Lockdowns are necessary, but they also create their own harms. Because of systemic racism, racialized people are more likely to receive COVID-related fines. In the name of stopping COVID-19, police have illegally accessed private medical information. While conspiracy theorists get a lot wrong, their worries about state power are partially justified.
Expertise and power
Recognizing the rationality in the irrational helps us understand conspiratorial thinking. It also lets us reconsider how we approach COVID “skeptics.” But let us not be naïve. COVID misinformation is not just factually wrong. It is deadly. Appreciating conspiracy theorists’ valid concerns is hard when their behaviour threatens everyone, even ourselves and those we love.
Out of frustration, one response has been to “trust the experts.” Rather than an uncritical appeal to authority, “trusting the experts” is rooted in the humble recognition that no one can know everything. It is also meant to demonstrate that, despite the conspiracy theorists’ best efforts to “find the truth,” those with years of experience in government policy and medical sciences have come to different conclusions.
Trusting experts would have enormous benefits. If more people obeyed lockdown orders, wore a mask, and stayed home, there would be fewer unnecessary deaths. But there are many problems with this approach. Science is not the only thing informing government policy. The state is also interested in maintaining and expanding its own power. Doing so requires extending the reaches of the law and working more closely with business. In Alberta, Bill 10 gave ministers the power to change laws without the Legislative Assembly’s approval—a measure unnecessary for stopping COVID-19. As for business, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives have used emergency powers to rezone land for developers—who supported the party in the previous election—while taking little action on affordable housing.
The state is not the only institution wielding power. While the medical establishment has contributed to health and longevity, it has also perpetuated harms against racialized and disabled people. Racialized people’s pain and suffering is taken less seriously, sometimes resulting in their death. Indigenous women continue to have their babies taken from them after birth. The medical establishment has engaged in the mass, non-consensual sterilization of disabled people as well as their forced confinement in psychiatric institutions.
This is not to take away from medical experts and the positive effects of their work. Doctors and nurses place their lives at risk to save COVID-19 patients. Bureaucrats work tirelessly to communicate the science behind the pandemic. But to effectively combat misinformation and end systemic harm, a more nuanced discussion is needed.
Toward a new narrative
We are confronted with a false dichotomy: either accept pseudoscientific conspiracy theories or trust “expert” opinion. With the former, we risk engaging in behaviour that spreads COVID-19. With the latter, we help stop the virus but also legitimize institutions that cause their own harms.
Another narrative is possible, one that respects science and is critical of institutional power. First, deference should be given to scientific expertise. This is not antithetical to being critical. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wisely said that, “in the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult the architect or the engineer.” And when it comes to COVID-19, we defer to experts in the medical sciences.
Simultaneously, though, we must understand the role of power. Institutions are vested in their own survival and will use crises to further establish themselves. Conspiracy theorists rightfully observe this in regard to state “tyranny” and the medical establishment (albeit in ways not always grounded in science and fact). What they miss, however, is the role of the political economy.
A focus on the political economy would serve many purposes. The true causes of most of our social ills would be addressed, which would allow for more effective change rather than conspiratorial obsessions about satanic plots and microchips. It would also help to demobilize hate, as conspiracy theorists recognize alienation but use it to attack the most vulnerable, including Jewish, Chinese, and LGBTQ people. Instead, frustration should be directed toward the political economy.
Focus on the economy would also lead to better critical thinking. Rather than take conspiracy theorists at their word, those vulnerable to their rhetoric might examine their own economic position. On closer inspection, they would find that most anti-lockdown groups are led or funded by business owners, who have a financial interest in keeping the economy open and using racism to divide the working class against itself.
Of course, shifting to such a nuanced narrative will be difficult. Those who do wear masks and isolate themselves may have trouble appreciating the degree of alienation experienced by people engaging in dangerous behaviour. Business owners will continue to promote conspiracy theories to try to open the economy. Notwithstanding these challenges, a critical recognition of both science and institutional power will not only help stop COVID-19 but also make us more resilient in the face of the next crisis.
Aidan Simardone writes critically on counter-terrorism and state violence. He is a law student currently completing his Juris Doctor, with an interest in international and human rights law. He is the recipient of the 2020 National Association of Japanese Canadians & Roger Sachio Obata C.M. Prize in International Human Rights Law and the 2020 Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP Prize for the best paper in Sexuality and the Law.